Planning a Walt Disney World vacation is a BIG DEAL, especially if you are going for the first time! So many resorts AND restaurants AND rides AND experiences AND princesses AND character meals–soooooo many options can make the beginning of the journey daunting and overwhelming.
Not to mention, most families save for a long time in order to afford a Disney vacation and if you spend the big bucks, you want a magical experience. Sometimes, looking online just makes things worse–who in the world makes dining reservations 180 days out and what do all of those acronyms (TTC, ADR, BOG, MK) represent?!?
It is so alarming and confusing! I get it.
No worries…I’m here to help.
Let’s think of all of this like registering for college classes or buying a new car. Technically, you CAN just show up on the first day of college and hopefully you MIGHT get 1 or 2 classes, but it certainly will not be what you need, every class will be at the wrong time and the classes won’t even apply towards your degree plan, making it a total waste of your time and money.
You CAN just show up at a car dealership and buy whatever car is available. It might not have enough seats for your family and it might lack the bells and whistles you desire.
Likewise, you CAN just arrive at Disney and buy a ticket and walk in to a theme park. Disney will not send you away. (Unless it’s Christmas Day and the park reaches maximum capacity.) LOL (Funny, but not really…)
BUT, if you spend a little time planning your college classes each semester and you register in advance, it greatly increases the chance of you getting the classes that you need at the times you want–saving you money and time and making you smarter!
Same with the car–a little research and effort goes a long way.
So, instead of dreading the planning process of a Walt Disney World vacation, consider it a time to learn. Yes! Planning a Disney trip makes you smarter!
It is BEST to plan and get the experience you want–And pay for!
This is a vacation, after all.
A no regrets vacation.
I wrote 2 posts that will help you get started.
- Click here to read the most important thing you need to know about Walt Disney World.
- Click here to learn the top 10 things you need to ask yourself before planning a Walt Disney World vacation.
Once you read BOTH blog posts, you can continue reading this one. No, really…you have to go read those two things. It will only take a few minutes.
Really. I mean it.
Go read them.
No, I am not going to tell you what it says.
You have to read it for yourself.
Did you read BOTH?
Ok…I am continuing under the assumption that you are an honest person and follow directions.
Now that you know the most important thing about Walt Disney World AND you have answered all of those questions, the simple, easy and fun stuff is up next! You don’t need me anymore!
I am just teasing. I promise to walk you step-by-step through the process and show you exactly how I plan my Disney trips. (Mostly because I am pretty sure only 1/10 of my readers took the time to read those 2 links. LOL)
Keep in mind that every Disney trip looks different. Every family has different priorities and even my own Disney vacations evolve as my children change and mature.
So, this is how I plan my Disney trips. Take notes, my friends.
I always start the planning of a new Disney trip by buying a spiral notebook (or stealing one from my homeschooling stash.) It helps me keep track of notes, park days, dining reservations, Fast Pass+, packing lists, outfit planning and so much more!
Then, I purchase the Unofficial Guide To Walt Disney World for the year that we plan to travel. Yes, the book changes and yes, everyone needs the book for the specific year of the vacation. Disney changes every day…and the writers do an amazing job of updating the book each year.
Sometimes, the new book for my travel year is not yet available.
The new editions are typically released around August of the previous year. I pre-order as needed. For example, for my upcoming 2018 trip, I pre-ordered the 2018 version on February 17, 2017 (as soon as I knew we would be traveling in 2018). It should arrive sometime in August 2017, from Amazon.
To pre-order the 2018 version, click here.
While I am waiting for the new edition, I start thinking about the big questions.
***This is where reading those posts I mentioned above MIGHT come in handy: when to travel, who is going, what’s the budget, how are we getting there, and how long are we staying, etc.
The book can help answer those questions, too.
Here is my thought process:
When can we travel to Florida? Do we have the time to drive from Texas or do we need to fly? Who is going?
I should probably start a savings account. LOL
We are a homeschooling family, but my daughters take several classes that require attendance. Depending on the semester, schedule and rigors of the classes, our planning might be constrained or quite free. It just depends.
When the children were younger, we planned vacations around my husband’s work schedule. Right now, my husband can’t always sneak away from his commitments.
I also have an adult son that graduated from college and moved to a different state. When he was in elementary school and junior high, we never hesitated to pull him from public school for family vacations. Once he entered high school and college, he chose not to travel for lengthy times. But, now he can go if life allows! Yipppeeeee!
So, “who is going” is a necessary and logistical question for my people and the answer is always evolving, just like my family.
Our vacation dates are most likely determined by who is traveling with me, school schedules and work schedules.
I don’t want this to frighten you, but here is what I currently deal with:
For our 2017 trip, my husband, 2 daughters and I took several days and drove to Tampa, FL. We stayed in Tampa and enjoyed experiences there for 4 days and then my son flew from Chicago to Tampa. Once he arrived, we all drove to Orlando together and checked in at the Caribbean Beach Resort. (Room sleeps 5). We enjoyed Disney together for 5 days and then my husband flew back to Texas. My 3 kids and I enjoyed Epcot and then the next morning, my son flew back to Illinois. The girls and I checked out of Caribbean Beach Resort and checked in to Animal Kingdom Lodge for 2 nights (Room sleeps 4). Then, the girls and I took 2 days and drove back to Texas. (YIKES!)
Do you understand why I use a spiral notebook?
Hopefully, your planning won’t be as complicated. It was super fun, though!!! LOL
If your planning is equally nutty, make it work people. Time with your family is the most important thing and it deserves all of your effort.
So, let’s pretend my new Unofficial Guide book has arrived and I have a general idea of when I want to travel and who is going with me! YIPPPEEE!
The authors of the Unofficial Guide have an awesome website called Touring Plans. A discount code for an one-year membership is offered with the purchase of the book. Once I have the book in my hand, I renew my online membership at Touring Plans. The yearly membership is $14.95. With the discount, it is $9.72. It gives me all-access to the website and the app, it does not renew automatically and they do not spam to death. It is delightful and a very important part of my planning process.
Planning Note: While reading the Unofficial Guide, take notes on anything new, interesting, and noteworthy in the handy little spiral. There are restaurant reviews, tips and secrets, and plans on how to tour the parks and cut down wait times. It is an invaluable piece of the planning process.
So, let me do a quick recap.
Spiral notebook. Loose, fluid or constrained travel dates. List of travelers. Unofficial Guide for vacation year. Membership on Touring Plans website. Add Touring Plans app to my phone.
Now the FUN really begins.
How do I nail down travel dates?
Traveling to Disney and how we actually get to Florida will be determined by my timeline. We will fly if we need to get there quickly, but we honestly prefer to drive and sightsee along the way. I do my best to make the latter option a reality.
As for the actual theme park dates, I use the Touring Plans website. With my membership, I have access to the magical crowd calendar. I. Love. The. Crowd. Calendar.
The Crowd Calendar gives a crowd level rating to each park for each day for an entire year. If my travel dates allow the freedom to choose, I search for a week that has levels less than 5. Less than 5 is always my goal. It does not always work out that way, but it is always preferred. Of course, we have totally enjoyed crowd level 10 days, too! Just have to be a little more flexible when the crowds are that high.
I like to create a page of dates in my notebook, typically spanning 3 or 4 weeks. I jot down all of the projected crowd levels, days of the weeks, etc. Then, I look and find the “sweet spot”–a cluster of days that are crowd level rated 5 or less. Those dates become our travel dates. **If there is a high crowd day (8+) stuck in the middle of my sweet spot, then that day becomes our rest day!
Planning Note: There are many crowd calendars available online. Just Google “Disney World crowd calendar”. Make sure you are looking at Disney World, not Disneyland. I have found that most of the calendars are similar, but I rely on the experts at Touring Plans. The crowd levels are projected, of course. No one can see the future. (If you can, please contact me immediately! Thank you!)
How do I choose which theme parks to visit?
At this point, we have the 4 main parks memorized and I know which ones we need several days to enjoy and which ones we can skip or tour in a half of a day.
We love, love, love the Magic Kingdom.
We always spend most of our vacation enjoying the Magic Kingdom theme park. As my children got older, we added more days to our tours of Epcot (2-3 days). Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are both 1 day parks for us and we have even skipped Animal Kingdom several times. It honestly depends on the ages of your children, your interests and your timeline.
The four Walt Disney World parks are the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
Each park has it’s own personality and different rides, shows, restaurants and experiences to appeal to the masses.
Planning Note: Choose which parks you want to visit based on the ages and interests of your traveling party. Hollywood Studios has the most thrill rides. Magic Kingdom is the best park for toddlers. Epcot is perfect for an adult only trip and Animal Kingdom is a must-see for animal lovers.
But, each Disney park has something for everyone!
How do I choose a resort?
My family and I have stayed on Disney property and off property and if our budget allows, we 100% prefer a deluxe Disney on-property resort. Sometimes, we can make that happen and sometimes…well…life.
There are several perks offered to Disney resort guests, like extra magic hours (extra time in the parks), free transportation, Fast Pass+ booking at 60 days, complimentary parking at the parks, dining plan options, etc. Plus, when we vacation at Disney, we want full Disney immersion. We are junkies, remember?
While reading the Unofficial Guide, I research resorts to see what fits the needs of my family and whittle down the list of places that can accommodate my people.
Planning Note: Some Disney resort rooms only accommodate 4 people, some rooms sleep 5 and of course, there are suites and villas that hold more. I recommend you read the entire accommodations section in the Unofficial Guide. It describes in length each Disney resort and several off-property resorts.
This is where budget comes into play BIG TIME.
Disney divides their resorts into 3 main categories: deluxe, moderate and value. I can post in more detail about that later. My current budget will determine which level of resorts I research and my travel party size determines the room. Budget. Budget. Budget. Blah.
I consider the location of the resort, which will directly affect transportation to and from parks (Is the resort on the monorail system? Are ferry boats available? Only buses?)
Resort food and dining options are also important to me.
I compare resorts in the Unofficial Guide book and on the actual Disney website and then I pick the winner.
So, assuming I know my travelers, the travel dates and now the resort, I book my vacation on the Disney website. Booking online is pretty straight forward, unless the dates I want have not yet opened. For example, I am writing this post on March 20, 2017. The Disney website has the option to book vacations until December 31, 2017. Sometimes dates during the upcoming year open in June, sometimes it is August.
Planning Note: Do not fret! Just call 407-939-1936 and book over the phone if your dates are not listed online yet.
Disney only requires a $200 deposit to hold a reservation. Payments can be made at anytime and the remaining balance is usually required within 60 days of the check-in date. That time frame can vary, so be mindful of your specific date and don’t forget to make payments!
When I book the resort online, I also make decisions on theme park tickets, water parks, park hopper, dining plan and memory maker.
If time allows, my family needs to take a rest day in the middle of our Disney vacations. We usually don’t go to a theme park on the day we check in and sometimes, we don’t go to a park on our check out day, either. If we are staying at the resort for 7 nights, we don’t necessarily need park tickets for 7 days. I choose tickets based on how many days we will be going to the parks, not how many days we are at the resort.
Planning Note: The number of nights that you stay at a Disney resort do NOT have to match the number of days of theme park tickets. You can stay at a resort and never buy tickets, if you like.
My daughters have shown no interest in the waterparks, so I skip that section.
Historically, I also skipped the Park Hopper section, too. We ALWAYS just spent an entire day inside one park at a time. But, we used Park Hopper for the first time during our 2017 vacation and we LOVED it! My kids are older now–ages 24, 13 and 11–so going to more than one park a day is easier than it would have been when they were toddlers. I can write a more in depth post about Park Hopper at a later date.
Memory Maker is a must for us. Memory Maker is $149 in advance, $169 if you decide to add it later. It allows for unlimited downloads of every Photo Pass picture taken of you and your family during your vacation. Our 2017 vacation generated 718 Photo Pass pictures. I don’t know about your family, but we NEVER get a full family pic because I am the only one taking pictures!
Get Memory Maker.
Family pictures are so important.
Plus, the ride photos are hilarious!
Seriously, how awesome are these pictures? All Photo Pass pics–I downloaded each one to our computer and I can print them, put them on a coffee mug or make a super cool wrap for my car! Whatever I want. (As long as I don’t sell and make money.) Whenever I want. Forever.
Next, I decide if we need the dining plan. And if we do, which dining plan will work best for my travel people.
For now, I will just say that we used the dining plan and saved a ton of money when my kids were younger than 10. We used every table service credit to eat at buffets and character meals and we saved quite a bit of money. Plus, knowing that our meals were essentially pre-paid helped quite a bit with “sticker shock”.
Planning Note: 10 is the magical age that children become adults in Disney’s eyes. Ticket prices and dining plan prices are higher for adults, ages 10 and up.
Planning Note: At the time of this post, if you want the dining plan, Disney requires you to pay for the plan for every night of your resort stay. There is no option for anything less and your entire traveling party (in your resort room) must be on the dining plan. The dining plan is only available for Disney resort guests.
I make all of these decisions and choose accordingly online. By the time I am done “checking out” online, I have chosen my travel dates, travel party, resort, number of days for theme park tickets, park hopper (yes or no), waterpark option (yes or no), memory maker (yes or no), and dining plan (yes or no). I pay the $200 deposit.
If we plan to fly to Orlando, I start researching flights once everything at Disney is booked. If we are driving, we start planning our route and possible interesting stops along the way.
How do I plan dining?
I try VERY, VERY, VERY hard to plan our Walt Disney World vacations more than 180 day out. That is always my goal. But, you know…life.
If I book our vacation and it is less than 180 days to our check-in date, I immediately book dining reservations the instant I complete the online booking of our trip.
Either way, I book dining as soon as I am possibly allowed. With a Disney resort reservation, guests can book advanced dining reservations (ADR) 180 days before check-in date, plus 10 days. This confuses people and I will write a post dedicated to dining asap. But, let me quickly explain.
If my check-in date is June 6th, let’s assume 180 days before that is January 6th. I am not going to pull out a calendar and do that math, so let’s just all agree it is 180 days.
On January 6th, I can made advanced dining reservations for any available dining June 6th-June 16th. Essentially, it allows guests to make reservations for their entire vacation (as long as it is 10 days long or less), instead of having to book 1 dining reservation today, book 1 tomorrow, 1 the next day, etc.
Does that make sense? The 180 days, plus 10 days is only available for Disney resort guest. Guest staying off property get the 180 days and will need to book 1 reservation a day (unless you are less than 180 days out).
I hope I didn’t make it more confusing.
For this little post (LOL–it’s getting sooooo long!), I am going to pretend I have more than 180 days until my check-in date.
While I am waiting for my 180 day mark, I read about new restaurants, character meals and look at menus in my Unofficial Guide and online. The Disney website shows the most recent menus for each restaurant and I add the My Disney Experience App to my phone.
Planning Note: Add the My Disney Experience app to your phone and get familiar with the lay out long before you arrive at Disney. Use this app to keep track of dining reservations and Fast Passes while in the theme parks.
I ask my kids and husband what restaurants they want to visit, if I need to book any character meals, and I create a very loose plan in my magical spiral notebook.
Planning Note: Book the most important restaurant first, even if it’s on the 3rd day of your vacation. Then, go back and book dining for the 1st and 2nd day.
Once my 180 mark comes, I book all of my dining online or on the My Disney Experience (MDE) app. I typically get the dining reservations we want because I am a little flexible with days AND I book at 180 days out.
Non-Disney people think that is nuts. But, let’s all remember my college registration and car buying analogies.
Planning Note: If you do not have park hopper, you can only go inside one theme park a day. You can come and go from that one park 100 times in that one day, but you can not enter another park. That means, all of your dining reservations need to be inside that one park or at a resort for that day. Dining at a restaurant inside a theme park requires guests to have a theme park ticket.
So, if I can’t get a reservation for a restaurant on a day we are in a specific park, I will alter my little notebook plans to accommodate the dining reservation. Priorities, my friends.
Booking dining 180 days out (as crazy as it sounds) gives guests the best chance to get the desired restaurants at the right times. I HIGHLY recommend making ADR for every table service restaurant and for the quick service meals offered at Be Our Guest.
If I can’t get a reservation for a must-see restaurant, I check my MDE app several times every day. People cancel dining reservations all of the time and I want to snag it!
Once dining is all booked, the plans for each day are pretty much set in stone.
Next, I decide on dinner shows, tours, or additional experiences and book those.
One of our family Disney rules is to try at least 1 new restaurant and 1 new experience during each vacation.
At this point, the resort, dining and extra experiences are all booked.
Planning Note: Don’t forget to continue to make payments on your vacation through your My Disney Experience account!
Around the 180 day mark, or about 6 months before check-in, my family starts to “train” for Disney. I am so serious and people laugh about this one, but Disney requires a TON of walking and we don’t want to stop the Disney fun because of a lack of conditioning! So, we start walking as a family–further, longer and more often than normal–and we use that uninterrupted time to discuss Disney things, of course!
Now it is time for matching T-shirt planning!!!!
OMG! (Jumping up and down!)
My Favorite part of a Disney vacation!
Ok…maybe not my favorite…but I really, really like it.
I plan our theme park outfits based on parks, rides, characters or dining each day.
My youngest daughter LOVES the People Mover. Obviously, we will wear our People Mover shirts to Magic Kingdom, where the People Mover lives. Matching Star Wars shirts are for Hollywood Studios because of Launch Bay…Frozen T-shirts for Epcot when my daughters met Elsa and Anna. It’s all planned. I know you are shocked.
I start ordering shirts and outfits as soon as I have the resort and dining booked. Custom shirts can take several weeks, especially around the holidays.
I also start gathering tiny trinkets for what I call ‘The Disney Fairy’.
When my girls were very young, I started placing Disney themed items near the sinks at our resort each night as a surprise for the next morning. (little things from the dollar store)
It helped cut down on the “I wants” as we toured the parks. It became a tradition and I still love surprising them!
As my daughters have gotten older, the trinkets have evolved, of course. If I get the chance to sneak away and shop while at Disney, I might even pick up something I saw them eyeing earlier. It’s kind of like the Santa thing…they never ask about the Disney Fairy…they believe so they receive.
How do I book Fast Pass+?
Guests staying at a Disney resort can book Fast Pass+ starting at 60 days out from the check-in date. Fast Passes are free–3 per person per day and after the 3rd one is used, an additional Fast Pass can be added, and so on until the park closes or until there are no more Fast Passes. I can write a post dedicated to Fast Passes later.
Leading up to my 60 day window, I discuss rides with my family. Are there any new rides? What are the must-do rides for each person? If there are any concerns (height requirements, drops, scary scenes, darkness, etc.), I look up the rides on YouTube and read the attractions section in the Unofficial Guide.
Guest staying off property can book Fast Passes at 30 days out.
At my 60 days window, I book my Fast Passes for each day we are in the theme parks. Fast Passes can be booked online or on the MDE app. My family and I are firm believers in arriving at the theme parks at rope drop, which is just a fancy way of saying, “when the parks open.” Because we get there early, we ride important rides first and use our Fast Passes later in the day when the traditional lines are typically longer.
Planning Note: Be mindful when booking Fast Pass times. Make sure the ride times do not conflict with dining reservations or parades that you want to attend.
Planning Note: Book Fast Passes for lunchtime and mid-day, when the parks are at their peak crowd levels. Get to the theme parks early, ride important attractions first and then use your Fast Passes later.
Planning Note: Fast Passes can also be used to meet characters.
Once the Fast Passes are in place, planning is complete! WOW! I never thought I would get to this part of this post. YIIIPPPEEEE! Finally!
Magic Bands will arrive about 3 weeks before departure. Historically, they arrive in an unmarked box, so be on the lookout.
I start packing about 3 weeks before we plan to leave. I create a huge packing list in my handy dandy notebook and I make enormous piles on the floor of my bedroom.
I tag the outfit piles with the date and theme park or restaurant. I pack the piles with the sticky notes on top so I can organize once we arrive at our Disney resort. Some *might* call that crazy (like my husband) but I like to call it GENIUS.
3 weeks before check in is a great time for last minute things, like autograph books (which my daughters outgrew, unfortunately).
Planning Note: Online resort check-in is available through the My Disney Experience account, too!
I also buy my beloved rain ponchos.
And garbage bags. For real.
A few weeks out is also when I plan travel activities–plane, train or automobile.
And finalize the budget for souvenirs and snacks.
Decisions about strollers need to be made before a Disney vacation, too. This does not apply to my family any longer, but over the years, we took 1 stroller, 2 separate strollers and we have also rented a double stroller from Disney. Lots of options. Lots to consider.
WOW–my brain is FRIED! How about yours?!?
I hope this helped a little and didn’t make things worse. Once I recover, I will write some more.
Let me know if you have any questions. I am always happy to help!
And I can talk Disney all day.
A quick reference guide summary of this marathon-long post can be found here.